Interview in Offscreen Magazine

Tom Loosemore

Behind this remarkably anodyne headline is some compelling reading. This interview tracks Tom’s working life over more than twenty years, but in doing so is hugely illuminating about the intellectual, moral, and political history of digital public services, up to and beyond the creation of the Government Digital Service. As ever, understanding how we got here is indispensable to a good understanding of where we are.

The interview very clearly brings out why it was important for GDS to be set up in the way that it was, needing to avoid the existential risk of getting trapped by the inertia of large organisations.

The idea was to build a bubble in which the main strategy was delivery: let’s deliver great stuff so quickly that bureaucracy can’t catch us.

It also shows how important it has been (and continues to be) to put creative effort into making things which had been obscure more visible, in ways which shift the balance of power away from institutions and towards individuals. That recognition may though have obscured the extent to which that can only be a part of what people need from government. – which is perhaps one reason why the original emphasis of GDS was so much on better information provision, with the recognition of the importance of government as service provider only coming later.

Then we realised that the real heart of public services isn’t just providing information, it’s transactional service […] It’s great to have a website that tells you what to do, but doing the thing, that’s the actual service. And that’s a much harder problem to solve.

Perhaps the most powerful point – and one still not sufficiently recognised – is the recognition that modern, effective and efficient government is not the same as uniform, self-service and largely invisible government.

In government the risk of ‘designing for people like us’ is much greater than for most businesses. Many of us are in a position from where we see anything government-related as a hassle. We want it to disappear or reduce the friction of government interaction to zero. I think that’s a dangerous over-simplification, because the people who really need government the most don’t want the government to disappear. Quite the opposite. For those who are really struggling – and it could be any one of us at some point in our lives – the government is a safety net, and that safety net cannot be invisible nor completely frictionless. We need to facilitate a proper relationship between someone with a difficult problem and a public servant.

Of course the reason why teams such as GDS and its comparators in governments around the world need to be set up to subvert the stodgy institutions of government is precisely that they are stodgy. No doubt influenced by the audience of the magazine in which the interview first appealed, the heroes of the battle against the stodge turn out to be tech people

We need people to go in there and ruffle some feathers, show good leadership, and inject a new culture. If the machine rejects you, fine, try another way in or do something else. As someone working in tech you’re not going to struggle to find a new job, really.

There is a very real danger of hubris in that attitude, not so much from Tom himself, but from many who have followed him into (and often back out of) government. The policy traditions of government undoubtedly need to absorb the shock of digital, but that won’t be successful on a sustainable basis unless those who embody the digital perspective also make the effort to understand government, politics, and public services.

Do you think an improvement in service delivery is enough to regain the public’s confidence in government and politics in general?

That’s our only bloody hope!

Government service delivery needs to improve, for all the reasons Tom argues for. But that is far from being our only hope, and seeing it as such risks missing something important about government – what it is, as well as what it does.

Designers as power brokers

Stephen McCarthy

If designers can redistribute power, the choices they make are political – the distribution of power, and the choices it enables, being fundamentally what politics is about.

That is, of course, true regardless of whether designers recognise or acknowledge that that is what they are doing. This post does make – and celebrate – that acknowledgment, without perhaps fully following through the implications. The claim is a strong one:

As a designer in government my role is to give power to those people who often feel disempowered.

Giving power to the powerless is not a self-evidently neutral ambition. Digital is inescapably political.

That’s not to say that that ambition is wrong or is one that designers should not pursue – or even that expressing it in those terms is necessarily politically controversial. But “to redress the balance between the powerful and the disempowered in our society” is inescapably political – and so leaves us with the question of whose choice that is or should be.

The End of the Beginning of Digital Service Units

David Eaves and Ben McGuire – digital HKS

This interesting post steps back from the detail of digital teams in governments around the world to ask in a more general way where to go next. Once the team has been established, once the early battles won, once the first examples of what better looks like have been produced, once at least some form of stable existence has been achieved – what then?

The post is partly a reflection on ways of embedding change in government – by exerting control, or by building consensus – and partly a recognition that some of these teams, including the GDS in the UK, are facing both the easiest and the hardest stage of their existence. Easiest because a degree of maturity has been established, delivery has been demonstrated, and the voices suggesting that the whole thing is a waste of time are quieter and fewer. But hardest because those early deliveries have a tendency to be superficial (which is not at all to say simple or easy): they sit on top of structures and functions of government which remain fundamentally unchanged. That’s been apparent from early on – this post, for example, argued six years ago that the superstructure cannot determine the base. That mattered less in the early days, because there were other things to do, but is critical to the future of government.

And that’s more or less where Eaves and McGuire end up too:

Behind us is the hard part of starting up. Today is about building capital and capacity. What’s next in the mid term…? A long slow battle over what the structure and shape of government will look like. And making progress on that I fear will be infinitely more difficult and painful than improving services on a project by project basis.

Digital Transformation at Scale – a review

Matthew Cain

It’s probably not news to most readers that some of the leading creators of the Government Digital Service have written a book. Many have been swift to observe the apparent irony that the book in question has been published only on paper, with no digital version available. That’s a fairly major obstacle fort those of us with a strong preference for the latter.

But now an alternative solution presents itself, in the form of a thorough and balanced review by Matthew Cain. The creation of GDS by Mike Bracken and his team was an enormous achievement and, despite its detractors, much good continues to be done there well after the first generation of pioneers moved on. But the founders’ vision was a narrower one than they ever quite acknowledged and the government context in which they found themselves was more unusual than they realised – or as Matthew puts it, ‘The section on political sponsorship basically tells readers to have a political sponsor called Francis Maude.’

Update: 22 June 2018

The publisher have helpfully made contact to share the good news that the book is now available on kindle, and apparently is due to appear in other formats. But that leaves unanswered the perennial mystery of why publishers find it so much harder to produce electrons than paper.


Democratic technical debt

Alex Blandford – Medium

The modern surge of digital government has many strengths, but it also has a central weakness. It tends to assume (usually without noticing that it has done so) that the central relationship between individual and state is that between a service user and a service provider. That relationship does, of course, exist and making it work better is vitally important. But if that’s all there is to it, we risk creating something more atomised and more shallow than it could be or should be.

There are two missing pieces from that service led view. One is that the role of a government service user goes beyond the specific interaction or transaction of the moment. The other is that there are legitimate interests in the service and how it is provided which goes well beyond those who are specific users of it. Systems have democratic and social value, as well as transactional value, and to miss that is to miss something important.

This post explores the implications of that in one specific way, as well as more generally. Building on the idea of technical and organisational debt, now democratic debt comes into the mix as well. The slightly unexpected specific point which comes from that is the importance of thinking about user research differently, and recognising that cumulatively it represents a corpus of social research which beyond its immediate use is almost invariably unpublished, unseen and thus unusable. The challenge is to find a way of curating and using that research and the insights it has generated to drive down democratic debt.

Making public policy in the digital age

Richard Pope and Andrew Greenway – digital HKS

It’s worth looking out for things written by either of these authors, something written by both of them should be doubly worthwhile. There is indeed lots of extremely sensible advice in this piece – and that is so despite all that advice being built on a slightly questionable assumption. Good digital services, they tell us, are iterated daily, or better still hourly. Bad policy development, by contrast, is a long and painful process. The solution is obvious: if policy making were more like digital service iteration, the world would be a better place.

That thought is not wholly wrong. Smarter, faster, better policy making should indeed be everybody’s aim, and the suggestions made here are generally good ones. But it doesn’t follow that policy and service design are somehow interchangeable, or as they put it, “the policy is the service is the institution”. Designing policy to be deliverable and adaptable is indeed important, but so is designing policy to be socially and politically effective. Evidence gathering, consultation, legislation and evaluation can be frustratingly slow, but that doesn’t mean that they are best dispensed with. Policy is about service design, but the set of users of a policy is often much broader than the set of users of the service through which it is expressed, and both those perspectives matter.

Introducing the Minimum Political Product (MPP)

Joy Bonaguro – GovLoop

Some things you read provide value by giving you facts or ideas or examples that you didn’t know before. There is a very special – and all too rare – category of writing which provides value by making sense of things you knew already, which provides a clear and concise encapsulation of something which it is hard to explain easily. This post is firmly in that latter category, doing some hard work to make a useful concept simple.

The concept concerned is the ‘minimum political product’, which is quite like a minimum viable product except for being driven by a political need rather than a user need. They are a reality of life and it makes sense to understand them and to create them in a way which maximises the value they provide – and the fact that the genesis of the requirement, or some of the delivery characteristics it needs to demonstrate, is political doesn’t change that. That’s not to say that the first response to every minister wanting an MPP should be to build it. But it is a recognition that politics is both the art of making decisions and the context in which those decisions stand and fall, and that a solution which does not meet political needs may well not survive long enough to meet any needs at all.

AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?

House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence

There is something slightly disconcerting about reading a robust and comprehensive account of public policy issues in relation to artificial intelligence in the stately prose style of a parliamentary report. But the slightly antique structure shouldn’t get in the way of seeing this as a very useful and systematic compendium.

The strength of this approach is that it covers the ground systematically and is very open about the sources of the opinions and evidence it uses. The drawback, oddly, is that the result is an curiously unpolitical document – mostly sensible recommendations are fired off in all directions, but there is little recognition, still less assessment, of the forces in play which might result in the recommendations being acted on. The question of what needs to be done is important, but the question of what it would take to get it done is in some ways even more important – and is one a House of Lords committee might be expected to be well placed to answer.

One of the more interesting chapters is a case study of the use of AI in the NHS. What comes through very clearly is that there is a fundamental misalignment betweeen the current organisational structure of the NHS and any kind of sensible and coherent use – or even understanding- of the data it holds and of the range of uses, from helpful to dangerous, to which it could be put. That’s important not just in its own right, but as an illustration of a much wider issue of institutional design noted by Geoff Mulgan.

Designing digital services that are accountable, understood, and trusted

Richard Pope

This is a couple of years old, but is not in any way the worse for that. It’s an essay (originally a conference presentation), addressed to software developers, seeking to persuade them that in working in software or design, they are inescapably working in politics.

He’s right about that, but the implications for those on the other end of the connection are just as important. If the design of software is not neutral in political or policy terms, then people concerned with politics and policy need to understand this just as much. Thanks to Tom Loosemore for the enthusiastic reminder of its existence.

Looking at historical parallels to inform digital rights policy

Justine Leblanc – IF

Past performance, it is often said, is not a guide to future performance. That may be sound advice in some circumstances, but is more often than not a sign that people are paying too little attention to history, over too short a period, rather than that there is in fact nothing to learn from the past. To take a random but real example, there are powerful insights to be had on contemporary digital policy from looking at the deployment of telephones and carrier pigeons in the trenches of the first world war.

That may be an extreme example, but it’s a reason why the idea of explicitly looking for historical parallels for current digital policy questions is a good one. This post introduces a project to do exactly that, which promises to be well worth keeping an eye on.

The value of understanding history, in part to avoid having to repeat it, is not limited to digital policy, of course. That’s a reason for remembering the value of the History and Policy group, which is based on “the belief that history can and should improve public policy making, helping to avoid reinventing the wheel and repeating past mistakes.”

YouTube, the Great Radicalizer

Zeynep Tufekci – New York Times

This article has been getting extensive and well-deserved coverage over the last few days. Essentially, it is demonstrating that the YouTube recommendation engine tends to lead to more extreme material, more or less whatever your starting point. In  short, “YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism, while Google racks up the ad sales.”

The reason for including it here is not because of the specific algorithm or the specific behaviour it generates. It is because it’s a very clear example of a wider phenomenon. It’s a pretty safe assumption that the observed behaviour is not the result of a cabal of fringe conspirators deep in the secret basements of Google setting out a trail to recruit people into extremist groups or attitudes. The pretty obvious motivation is that what they are actually trying to do is to tempt people into spending as long as possible watching YouTube videos, because that’s the way they can put most advertising in front of most eyeballs.

In other words, algorithmic tools can have radically unintended consequences. That’s made worse in this case because the unintended consequences are not a sign of the intended goal not being achieved; on the contrary, they are the very means by which that intended goal is being achieved. So it is not just the case that YouTube has some strong incentives not to fix the problem, the problem may not be obvious to them in the first place.

This is a clear example. But we need to keep asking the same questions about other systems: what are the second order effects, will we recognise them when we see them, and will we be ready to – and able to – address them?

Digital government: reasons to be cheerful

Janet Hughes

This is an energetic and challenging presentation on the state of digital government – or rather of digital government in the UK. It’s available in various formats, the critical thing is to make sure you read the notes as well as look at the slides.

The first part of the argument is that digital government has got to a critical mass of inexorability. That doesn’t mean that progress hasn’t sometimes been slow and painful and it doesn’t mean that individual programmes and even organisations will survive, or even that today’s forecasts about the future of government will be any more accurate in their detail than those of twenty years ago. It does though mean that the questions then and now were basically the right ones even if it has been – and is – a struggle to work towards good answers.

The second part of the argument introduces a neat taxonomy of the stages of maturity of digital government, with the argument that the UK is now somewhere between the integrate and reboot phases. That’s clearly the direction of travel, but it’s perhaps more debatable how much of government even now is at that point of inflexion. The present, like the future, remains unevenly distributed.

Forget policy — start with people

Beatrice Karol Burks – Designing Good Things

This is a short polemic against the idea of policy, and by extension against the (self) importance of those who make it. It clearly and strongly makes an important point – but in doing so misses something important about policy and politics.

It is certainly true that starting with people and their needs is a good way of approaching problems. But it doesn’t follow that anything called policy is necessarily vacuous or redundant. Policy making, and indeed politics, is all about making choices, and those choices would still be there even if the options to be considered were better grounded.

None of that makes the practical suggestions in this post wrong. But if we forget policy, we forget something important.

A roadmap for AI: 10 ways governments will change (and what they risk getting wrong)

Geoff Mulgan – NESTA

This is a great summary of where AI stands in the hype cycle. Its focus is the application to government, but most of it is more generally relevant. It’s really helpful in drawing out what ought to be the obvious point that AI is not one thing and that it therefore doesn’t have a single state of development maturity.

The last of the list of ten is perhaps the most interesting. Using AI to apply more or less current rules in more or less current contexts and systems is one thing (and is a powerful driver of change in its own right). But the longer term opportunity is to change the nature of the game. That could be a black box dystopia, but it could instead be an opportunity to break away from incremental change and find more radical opportunities to change the system. But that depends, as this post rightly concludes, on not getting distracted by the technology as a goal in its own right, but focusing instead on what better government might look like.

Why Theoretical Physics Says The US Is Ungovernable

Yaneer Bar-Yam – Science Friday

An understanding of quantum field theory apparently demonstrates that in large convoluted organisations, hierarchical structures with one person in charge can’t work, because the level of complexity becomes impossible to manage. That’s essentially the long standing perspective of systems thinking – if you want to change a system, you have to change the system – and while it’s entertaining to see the point made from a different standpoint, the real question is not whether this approach can provide a diagnosis, but whether it can offer a prescription for change.

It’s almost certainly unfair to make a judgement about that on the basis of the transcript of a short radio interview, which is what this is, but what’s striking is how quickly the prescription becomes a platitude. If political decision making were more distributed, as decisions in the brain are distributed between neurons, better decisions would result. That may well be true, but doesn’t get us very far. Part of the suggestion here seems to be a form of subsidiarity, which is a good start, but one big reason politics is hard is because decisions really are interdependent. What we have to do, apparently, is create mechanisms whereby participation translates into actual decision making. Well yes (or at least, well maybe), but asserting a solution falls a very long way short of describing it.

It’s included here despite all that for two reasons. The first is as a reminder that politics is hard and that insights from other disciplines are unlikely to provide magic answers to long standing and intractable problems. The second is that problems of political decision making are long standing and intractable and answers, ideally less magical, are still very much needed.

How do we embed digital transformation in government?

Matthew Cain – Medium

There are increasing numbers of government services which are digital. But that doesn’t make for a digital government. This post is a challenge to set a greater ambition, to make government itself digitally transformed. As a manifesto or a call to arms, there’s a lot here: a government with the characteristics envisaged here would be a better government. But in general, the problem with transforming government has not been with describing how government might work better, but with navigating the route to get there – and that makes the question in the title critically important. Ultimately though, the digital bit may be a critical catalyst but is not the goal – and we need to be clear both about the nature of that goal and about the fact that digital is a means of transforming; not that transforming is a means to be digital. This post describes powerful tools for realising an ambition for better government – but they will have effect only if both ambition and opportunity are there to use them. On that, it’s well worth reading this alongside Matthew’s own post earlier this year commenting on the government’s digital strategy.

We’ll need more than £40m* a year to get free maps – specifically politicians willing to share

Ed Parkes

This is the back story to one of yesterday’s budget announcements – £40 million a year for two years to give UK small businesses access to Ordnance Survey data. If you are interested in that you will find it gripping. But even if you are not, it’s well worth reading as a perceptive – if necessarily speculative – account of how policy gets made.

There are people lobbying for change – some outside government, some within. What they want done has a cost, but more importantly entails changing the way that the problem is thought about, not just in the bit of government which owns the policy, but in the Treasury, which is going to have to pay for it. A decision is made, but not one which is as clear cut or all embracing as the advocates would have liked. They have won, in a sense, but what they have won isn’t really what they wanted.

It’s also a good example of why policy making is hard. What seems at first to be a simple issue about releasing data quickly expands into wider questions of industrial and social strategy – is it a good idea to subsidise mapping data, even if the first order beneficiaries are large non-UK multinationals whose reputation for paying taxes is not the most positive? Is time limited pump-priming funding the right stimulus, or does it risk creating a surge of activity which then dies away? And, of course, this is a policy with no service design in sight.

Technology for the Many: A Public Policy Platform for a Better, Fairer Future

Chris Yiu – Institute for Global Change

This wide ranging and fast moving report hits the Strategic Reading jackpot. It provides a bravura tour of more of the topics covered here than is plausible in a single document, ticking almost every category box along the way. It moves at considerable speed, but without sacrificing coherence or clarity. That sets the context for a set of radical recommendations to government, based on the premise established at the outset that incremental change is a route to mediocrity, that ‘status quo plus’ is a grave mistake.

Not many people could pull that off with such aplomb. The pace and fluency sweep the reader along through the recommendations, which range from the almost obvious to the distinctly unexpected. There is a debate to be had about whether they are the best (or the right) ways forward, but it’s a debate well worth having, for which this is an excellent provocation.


Do bureaucrats care? A take on talent in the public sector

Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose

The question in the title of this piece can be answered very simply: yes, overwhelmingly bureaucrats do care. The fact that such an answer is not obvious, or not credible, to many people who are not bureaucrats suggests that the better question might be, how is it that uncaringness is an emergent property of systems populated by caring people?

Two rather different groups of bureaucrats are considered here. The first is those furthest from the delivery of services, particularly policy makers, and of them particularly those who learned their penmanship while studying classics at Oxford. There are rather fewer of those than there once were. But there is overwhelming evidence that even those who do not neatly fit the stereotype can be far too distant from the people whose needs their policies are intended to address. The second group is those who deliver services directly to the people who use them, described drawing on the work of Bernardo Zacka, covered here a few weeks ago. They are not rules-applying automata, but subtle observers, judges and influencers of what is going on – and incorporating those perspectives and insights into policy making enhances it immeasurably. That is increasingly happening, but this post is a good reminder that too often the gap remains a wide one.